Counting down the Irish: The Top Five

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This ends our annual exercise. To check out past results,  start here. For this season, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings also include No. 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11 and 10-6

 

It’s official. Brian Kelly won yesterday’s press conference. Now we’ll find out the five players who’ll have the largest say in whether the Irish perform up to the lofty standards their head coach set yesterday.

If there’s been anything that’s glaringly stood out about this list, it’s the incredible depth Notre Dame has built up in Kelly’s six years in South Bend. And while most of the focus the past few weeks has been on the players departing—reserve defensive ends and third-string running backs somehow making their way onto the ESPN bottom line—it was pretty clear that those deletions won’t do much to derail Notre Dame’s intentions.

While most agree that this team is Notre Dame’s “best shot” in quite some time, it’s also worth pointing out the balance in this list.

Players in their final season of eligibility: Six.
Players with two years remaining: 12*
Players with three years remaining: Five.
Players with four years remaining: Two.

*This group includes Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and KeiVarae Russell, all likely candidates to turn professional after this season.

Of course, those stay-or-go decisions will be worries for another day. But even if nine players return from this talented group, it’ll form a core that’ll be more than supplemented by young and emerging personnel.

The message? The future is bright. But today, none of that means more than the present. Here are the final rankings for our annual Top 25.

 

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB

19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT
10. Malik Zaire, QB
9. C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
8. Nick Martin, C
7. Cole Luke, CB
6. Tarean Folston, RB

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

5. Sheldon Day (DL, Senior): We’ve spent years hearing Notre Dame’s coaches rave about Day’s abilities. Now it’s finally time to see him put together a season up to the standard set for him. Yesterday, Brian Kelly talked about different ways the Irish can utilize Day, perhaps shifting him outside on passing downs while moving someone else (Isaac Rochell, maybe?) to the three-technique. But Day’s pass rushing clout is more theoretical than anything we’ve actually seen proven. His career total is 3.5, just a shade more than a single sack a season.

That’s not to say that Day hasn’t been productive. But an elite player’s stat-line can’t include near-misses and almost disruptions.

Health has been a major barrier for Day. Only as a part-time freshman did he play every game. Entering his final season is South Bend, Day is healthy and ready to play to his potential. If he does, Notre Dame believes they have one of the country’s best and most versatile defensive linemen. Now Day needs to go out and prove it.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 7th.

 

Oklahoma v Notre Dame
Oklahoma v Notre DameJackson Laizure/Getty Images

4. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Senior): The long road back to the playing field is almost complete for Russell. And once he steps on the field, we’ll be done getting our updates on Notre Dame’s most impressive defensive back from his Instagram account, and instead we will see if Russell is able to pick up where he left off in the Pinstripe Bowl, dominating the game as a cover corner.

Russell has elite athletic traits. He’s fast, explosive, long-enough to cover tall receivers and quick enough to hang with the smaller ones. Perhaps best of all is his self-belief, a non-stop ball of energy and positivity who will infect this defense, unwilling to allow a swoon to hit like the one that ruined the 2014 season.

Heading into fall camp last year, the coaching staff expected Russell to emerge as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame should—and should is the operative word—have one of the best tandems in the country. But it’ll depend not just on Luke making the leap as an upperclassmen, but Russell shaking off the rust that comes with spending a year working against pylons and boxes, not wide receivers.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images

3. Will Fuller (WR, Junior): No player gets less credit for a record-setting season than Will Fuller. While Irish fans—and usually the national media—jump at the chance to talk about Notre Dame’s next great playmaker, Fuller managed to stay mostly anonymous on the national level after putting together the finest sophomore season of any wide receiver in school history.

Fuller’s versatility belies his modest measurables. He’s a deep threat who can get behind any defense. But he’s also one of the elite screen-game receivers in football, a dynamic threat who can break a quick throw into a touchdown.

There’s probably not much of an argument to push Fuller any higher up this list. But for all the complaints about Fuller’s mental lapses—he had too many drops and disappeared at times—the second-year receiver had a better overall season than Jaylon Smith, who currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated and sits atop this list.

We’ll find out what turning the offense over to Malik Zaire does to Fuller’s productivity. A more prolific running game could take touches away from the Irish’s top receiver. But even if defenses turn their attention to slowing down Notre Dame’s next great receiver, that doesn’t mean Fuller needs to let them.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 8th.

 

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images

2. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Senior): Getting Ronnie Stanley to stick around South Bend for another season was the biggest recruiting win of the offseason. As draftnik’s broke down 2014 film, Stanley’s outstanding play kept jumping off the screen, with many believing that Notre Dame’s left tackle was the best prospect at his position in the draft class.

Stanley took a big step during bowl preparations, stepping forward as a leader and marking his territory against an LSU defense that was among the best statistical units in the SEC. Now the charge will be to do it every game, anchoring the edge of the Irish offensive line and making sure that both pass protection and run blocking are dominant parts of his portfolio.

There is little chance that Stanley plays out his eligibility. But if he has a good season in 2015 he’s a candidate to be the draft’s first-overall selection… and that likely means the Irish offense was the most dynamic of the Kelly era.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.

 

Jaylon Smith
Jaylon SmithAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Junior): There’s no doubting Smith’s elite athletic traits. Nor that he’s still learning how to properly utilize them. A superhero in training, Smith’s sophomore season was filled with impressive moments, but not without a few humbling ones as well. But ultimately this group couldn’t get beyond the talent and versatility of Notre Dame’s third-year standout, almost a perfect linebacker in today’s game.

This is Smith’s second season atop our rankings. That’s lofty territory, and makes sense when you see Smith’s name on multiple preseason All-American lists. But as a junior who also has high first-round evaluations floating around, it’s up to Smith to prove he can do more than just the exceptional, but rather that he can do what’s expected of him, and do it at a level of mastery.

The stage is set for Smith to absolutely fill the stat-sheet. With proper depth at the inside linebacker positions, Smith can utilize his speed as a pass rusher, playing on the edge if needed. He’ll be able to help in coverage, erasing all but the most talented of tight ends, backs and receivers. But he’ll need to lose the freelancing from his game, somewhere he lapsed later in the season, especially after Joe Schmidt went down.

Put simply, Notre Dame’s most talented player wasn’t always its best and most responsible. But that should change in 2015.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 2nd.

 

***

Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.